Vatican, China set to renew deal on long path to diplomatic ties

Relations between the Vatican and China were broken off in 1951. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

VATICAN CITY (BLOOMBERG) - The Vatican is close to renewing a historic agreement with China on the appointment of bishops in the country, as the two states inch toward restoring diplomatic relations after almost 70 years.

The accord, first signed in September 2018, is due to be rolled over, possibly for another two years in the coming weeks, according to two people familiar with the matter who declined to be named discussing confidential talks.

A Vatican spokesman declined to comment.

Relations between the Vatican and China were broken off in 1951 and reaching a settlement with the Communist Party has proved elusive, especially as President Xi Jinping presides over the most widespread crackdown on religious freedom since it was written into the country's constitution in 1982.

Chinese authorities have jailed Catholic priests, demolished places of worship and detained hundreds of thousands of Muslim ethnic Uighurs in re-education camps. So any rapprochement with Beijing is sensitive, especially since China's ultimate goal would be for the Vatican to cut ties with Taiwan.

The democratically-run island, which China regards as a part of its territory, counts the Vatican as its last partner in Europe. It retains official ties with only 15 nations worldwide. That puts the tiny walled city state inside Rome at the centre of a geopolitical minefield at a time when tensions between the West and China are running high.

"China wants to talk to the Vatican because it realises the Vatican is a soft superpower - when the Pope speaks, everyone listens," said Mr Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Renmin University in Beijing.

The US administration has sought to bolster Taiwan's diplomatic profile, warning countries against cutting ties and sending Health Secretary Alex Azar to make the US's highest-level visit since recognising Beijing in 1979.

Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil predicted during his own subsequent trip there this month that Taipei would see similar support from European officials.

For its part, the Vatican seeks more protection and a degree of legitimacy for an estimated 12 million Catholics in China that are currently divided between a state-run authority where the government names the bishops and an "underground" church loyal to the pope.

The agreement, which has not been published, gives both sides a say in appointing the Church's bishops in China. Under the accord, proposed bishops are picked by elections and the bishops' conference in China, then put forward to the pope, who has power of veto, according to a person familiar with the issue.

China is wary of making the provisional agreement a permanent one, according to Mr Wang Yiwei, a former Chinese diplomat in Brussels and director of China's Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University. It also remains unsure about the Vatican's future direction, he said.

For Professor Lawrence Reardon, a political science expert at the University of New Hampshire who studies China-Vatican ties, restoring relations with the Vatican would be a propaganda coup for China.

It's problematic for the pope because the Vatican is seeing more repression of Catholics and it doesn't want to sacrifice its Taiwanese followers.

Even with both sides wary, the direction of travel is clear. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states, in a rare high-level encounter at the Munich Security Conference in February.

Mr Wang said at the time that China is "willing to further enhance understanding with the Vatican side."

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